Once the preserve of children’s entertainment, adult orientated animation has exploded in recent years, with superb efforts such as Persepolis, Waltz With Bashir and The Illusionist rivalling their live action counterparts for narrative sophistication and an expressive visual sensibility.
Adding to this illustrious list comes Chico & Rita, one of the most profoundly moving films of the year, a heart-wrenching love story set in pre and post-revolutionary Cuba. The politics is purposefully brushed aside to accommodate the perspective of the protagonists, whose intense yearning and passion is accentuated by sublime animation, a prominent hypnotic score and sparkling dialogue that owes a great debt to the linguistic dexterity of classic Hollywood films which the makers so obviously admire. However, this admiration for classic American cinema is tempered in an episode where Rita’s attempt to break into the mainstream is impeded by her ethnic origins, producers shunning her multitude of talents due to a fear of commercial failure and institutionalised racism in scenes echoing the real life Lena Horne, arguably one of Hollywood’s cruelest wastes of a talent.
Opening in modern day Havana, Cuba, an elderly Chico wiles away the days polishing the shoes of foreigners and listening to music on the radio – the sound of government propaganda flitting between channels as he attempts to tune in. Through the static an old classic song blasts forth and the announcer names the artists: Chico & Rito. “Where are they now?” the DJ asks, the question stirring memories in the author who proceeds to experience a prolonged flashback where he witness his first meeting with Rita, their falling in love and the events that tore them apart.
Apart from its fine narrative, Chico & Rita excels most in the social depth, and subtle deployment, of its details; Havana’s status as a playboy resort for American tourists in the 1940s vividly recreated as characters dive in and out of luxurious private clubs, an endless flow of mojito cocktails fuelling the vibrant nightlife and the unrepressed urges of its hedonists.
Cuba’s relative racial tensions, at least in comparison to those of America’s, are also touched upon, the maddening injustice of segregation presented in all its ugly bigotry. However, rather than dwell on or exploit these aspects they mingle in the background, there to be seen by the observant eye. It’s intelligent filmmaking with a sympathetic heart that cannot fail to enchant the viewer. It leaves you lamenting the Pixar generation of crass sentimentality and schematic narratives which, for all their achievements, cannot match the devotion and sincerity of less mainstream orientated animators.